Exploring the Music of Rudolf Escher

Escher cover

AwardESCHER: Concerto for String Orchestra.* Musique pour l’Esprit en Deuil+ / Concertgebouw Orch.; Riccardo Chailly, cond (live: Amsterdam, *March 10, 1988 & +February 24, 1991) / Le Tombeau de Ravel. String Trio / Jacques Zoon, fl; Bart Schneemann, ob; Ronald Hoogeveen, vln; Zoltan Benyacs, vla; Dmitri Ferschtman, cel; Glen Wilsion, hpd / Trio for Clarinet, Viola & Piano / Herman de Boer, cl; Benyacs, vla; Frank van de Laar, pno / Songs of Love and Eternity. Poems, First & Second Series: I taste a liquor never brewed. Le vrai visage de la paix par Picasso et Eluard: Le vrai visage de la paix. Ciel, air et vents. 3 Poems by W.H. Auden / Netherlands Chamber Choir; Ed Spanjaard, cond / Brilliant Classics 95967

These are the kinds of CDs I love: a collection of works by a very fine composer of whom I previously knew nothing. It turns out that Rudolf Escher (1912-1980) was a Dutch

Rudolf Escher

Rudolf Escher

composer with a German name, just as Frank Martin was a Swiss Huguenot composer with an American name. And even weirder, Escher’s earliest memories were of Java, where his father worked as a geologist from 1916 to 1921, and it was his father who gave him his first musical lessons. In 1931 he became a student at the Toonkunstconservatorium in Rotterdam where he studied composition with Willem Pijper from 1934 to 1937, but with the bombardment of Rotterdam, where Escher had lived since 1935, most of his compositions were destroyed and he had to start over again. Yet although he wrote one major work, the Musique pour l’Esprit en Deuil, before the end of the war, he refused to join the Nazi-led “Kultuurkamer” which served as a racist guild. This cost him dearly as his standard of living went down.

Each of the three CDs in this collection was previously issued singly by NM Classics, the joint label of CNM Centrum Nederlandse Muziek and Radio Netherlands International in 1995 (the orchestral disc) and 1999 (the chamber music and choral discs), thus it is nice to have the full set available here at a reasonable price with an informative booklet.

The Concerto for String Orchestra, written in 1947-48, was premiered by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Eduard van Beinum in December 1948. Almost immediately, one is struck by the influence of Bartók on his music, yet Escher clearly had his own voice, building the first movement, as the notes tell us, “from a basic melodic kernel using a sophisticated variation technique” while the second movement “has a symmetrical form (A B A C A B A)” and the third, Ciaconna epica, “is comprised of five variations on a theme, sounded in its basic form by two violins” though it goes through “vigorous polymelodic treatment as the movement progresses.” Surprisingly, this piece was greatly admired by then-young John Cage, who at the time was actually writing pretty good music and not the pretentious rubbish of his later years. Yet, oddly, Escher himself came to dislike this work, withdrew it and destroyed it in 1960; then, in 1966, he wrote to Cage telling him of this. Happily, the composer didn’t know that a copy had been preserved on microfilm in the Donemus archives. It was revived in 1988 by conductor Otto Ketting in a performance with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra, which revived interest in the work and led to this recording by Chailly. It is indeed a marvelous and highly imaginative piece, transcending the technical description given above, particularly in the rapid second movement, Escher overlaps scurrying string figures in an exciting bitonal moto perpetuo as well as tossing in some asymmetric rhythms that come close to sounding like Latin music. The Ciaconna epica is the longest movement, clocking in at almost 11 minutes, and is surprisingly accessible music despite its bitonal qualities, again quite imaginative and using a sort of “rocking” beat in 6/8. The music becomes increasingly more complex; by the eight-minute mark there seem to be three themes juggled at the same time. By the nine-minute mark, Escher is also juggling two opposing rhythms against one another, the initial 6/8 and a 4/4 in the strings.

The Musique pour l’Esprit en Deuil, written in 1941-43 before Escher stopped composing for a while, was possibly written, the notes tell us, “to somehow allay the spiritual upheaval he underwent as a result of the bombardment of Rotterdam and the dark period of occupation that followed.” This is quite obviously a much darker piece, somewhat related to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht or the early portion of Gurre-lieder with its edgy string tremolos and dark, biting brass passages, but once again he found his own voice. Indeed, in some ways the Musique is even more individual, and certainly more emotionally striking, than the Concerto; at one point, biting trombones combine with a snare drum, possibly to simulate the attack of Rotterdam, in a manner similar to that of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. At the 13:06 mark, the music suddenly swirls downward and crashes into a sea of low trombones before slowly restarting 49 seconds later. The music then eventually shifts to the major, where a theme of hopefulness rises in the strings, compromised to some degree by the continually pessimistic brass before the string tremolos return, but the glimmer of hope comes back before the end in a soft legato passage featuring both strings and winds.

Moving on to the chamber music, we begin with Le Tombeau de Ravel from 1952. Written on commission by the city of Amsterdam, it is in seven movements, combining the Impressionistic style of Ravel with Escher’s own sensibilities and uses a classic 18th-century combination of three strings (violin, viola, cello) with flute, oboe and harpsichord. Here, Escher’s use of harmony is a bit more traditional although he does throw in some strange harmonies quite foreign to Ravel’s music, and once again his sound sense of structure and vivid imagination are in play. The second-movement Air is the most lyrical of the movements, opening with a lovely cello solo before bringing the flute and violin in, and the Forlane has a nice, lilting 6/8 bounce, but all of it has a lightness and elegance of its own.

The String Trio from 1959, written in two movements titled “Transformations” and “Reminiscences,” is a jolly, bouncy piece, again quite attractive to the ear. Escher was evidently working towards a simpler, less complicated but no less inventive style by this time, yet he was also clearly not interested in writing music that sounded too much like “pop classical.” The bouncing counterpoint in “Transformations” is especially interesting and attractive; later in the movement, he again introduces dueling meters but does so without showing off. It’s just part of how he thought about music. “Reminiscences” is altogether more serious-sounding with its slow, measured, bitonal string theme, but somehow attractive in its own way.

The Trio for Clarinet, Viola & Piano, dating from 1979, was one of Escher’s last compositions. The liner notes refer to this work as “introverted,” but I certainly didn’t hear it that way. On the contrary, it is a surprisingly dramatic piece for a chamber work, with the piano part especially sounding quite strong and assured, as does the music in general. I think that what the annotator heard as introverted was simply the darker, less audience-friendly harmonies, which lean towards a certain dourness of expression, but I for one do not equate dourness with introvertism.

Although not written as a continuous piece, the slow second-movement “Passacaglia nocturne” sounded to me so much like a continuation and development of the first that I was surprised that the second movement had already started. And, once again, this passacaglia blends seamlessly into the last movement, marked “Comodo,” in which similar themes are developed as the tempo increases very gradually. Quite a few Ravel-like harmonies are heard around the five-minute mark, and it ends on a resolution of an Eb major chord.

The choral works begin with the Songs of Love and Eternity (1955) set to texts by Emily Dickinson: “These are the days when birds come back,” “Wild nights!,” “Heart, we will forget him!,” “The wind tapped like a tired man” and “To make a prairie it takes a clover.” The English diction of this Dutch chorus isn’t very good, but their blend is excellent, as is the music. Track 6 has one more Dickinson song, “I taste a liquor never brewed,” in which Escher uses falling chromatics masterfully in the voices accompanying the melody. Since no texts are included in the booklet, I can’t say what the text of Paul Eluard’s “Le vrai visage de la paix” is all about, nor the three poems in Ciel, air et vents by Pierre de Ronsard, but the three W.H. Auden settings are also very well matched to the words. In the Eluard song, Escher achieved some truly miraculous chord resolutions. My sole complaint was that some of the music in the French-poetry songs sounded a bit too “churchy” for my taste.

Unable to find reviews online from the past of any of the three single CDs from which this set is drawn, I can only assume that those discs flew under most critics’ radar, thus this set is extremely valuable as significant exposure for a major composer who has, apparently been forgotten outside his native country. Ordinarily I do not give “What a Performance” awards to reissues, but in this case I have because of the circumstances just noted. All of the performances herein are first-rate, and Escher clearly needs to be discovered by the world.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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